Service Animal Training

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Like people that serve others, assistance animals are required to undergo hours of training to work with people with disabilities. Learning to work together as a unit can be as much of a challenge for the individual as it is for a service animal. Although budding service animals will receive comprehensive training to respond to commands and function within a household, the individual will take part in training, too.

Service animal training aims to make sure a human and animal can work together to achieve several goals; it’s at this stage that both parties in this unique relationship learn to live with synergy. When training is successful, it’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

What type of training does a service animal, and his or her owner, receive?

Each person’s disability is as unique as the ability of a potential service animal. For that reason, it’s essential that each animal is trained to provide a broad range of assistance while learning to complete very specific tasks.

Generally, training is conducted by staff members or volunteers at the organization which is providing the dog. Under this set-up, the dog and the owner will be matched early on, when the dog is a puppy. This long term approach includes training for both the dog and the owner; it takes about a year before a dog is placed in-service.

Prior to beginning training, dogs will be assessed and screened. The trainers will make sure any dog provided to an individual is healthy and has the right temperament.

Because an owner’s safety is dependent on the ability of a dog to perform, the following issues are addressed in the training phase:

  • Ability to avoid distraction
  • Physical agility and mobility
  • Socialization
  • Ability to focus
  • Ability to follow commands

In many cases, organizations will foster dogs that are in training. By the time a dog is 12 to 18 months old, he or she will be evaluated for suitability as a service dog. After determining if a dog is capable of serving, professional trainers will teach him or her the following skills:

  • Distraction avoidance
  • Avoidance of obstacles
  • Working on heel positions
  • Ability to eliminate only on command

The IAADP has established some training standards for both dogs and owners. The standards focus on public access; they are not required, but recommended. The recommendations include:

  • Dogs should receive at least 120 hours of training
  • At least 30 training hours should be devoted to practicing in public places
  • Obedience training should include responding to verbal commands and physical signals
  • Manners taught to the dog should include controlling aggressive behavior, avoiding soliciting food or attention, and not responding to strange sounds or odors
  • Dogs must be able to complete tasks on demand

Under the same set of guidelines, trainers must be able to:

  • Serve as an ambassador for the service dog movement
  • Know and understand canine laws
  • Understand and advocate for a dog’s health
  • Use humane training methods

Typically, training takes one year, or until an owner and dog can demonstrate that they can work as a team inside and outside of the home.

In most cases, animals know they are working when they are wearing their vest and tag, and if they are on their harness. When a dog is not wearing gear, he knows he is not working. The exception to this rule is a seizure dog, which is trained to recognize disturbances in his or her owner’s equilibrium all of the time.

As a dog is trained, so is his or her owner. During training, dogs and owners will work together. Generally, the owner will learn how to:

  • Give verbal commands
  • Give cues
  • Praise the animal
  • Groom the dog
  • Watch for, and rectify, health issues as the come up
  • Work as a unit with the dog

A service dog is not intended to spend the rest of his or her life working. Dogs typically retire after 10 years; it is up to the owner if he or she would like to keep the dog as a pet post-retirement. When considering this, owners must determine whether they can handle having a dog as a pet, and another as a service dog.

What types of certifications does an animal – or trainer – need?

Although certification – for animals or their trainers – is generally not required in the United States, there is at least one organization that has worked to develop and implement standards for the training accreditation of service dogs.

Assistance Dogs International, or ADI, has established guidelines designed to make sure that dogs are properly trained, treated humanely and that people are prepared to work with animals.

The quality standards that the ADI encourages include:

  • Safe, clean training facilities
  • Ethical treatment of animals
  • Healthcare standards for animals
  • Proper training methods for dogs and humans
  • Criteria for administration of service animal providers

When an organization applies for accreditation, the ADI sends a trained assessor to evaluate the training facility and all of its programs over a period of several days. The first year of accreditation is considered probationary.

The following activities that take place during the visit include:

  • Staff interviews
  • Client conversations
  • Policy and procedural reviews

The ADI has so far accredited about 90 programs in the United States. All of those programs are required to be re-accredited at five-year intervals.

A program may also be accredited by the International Guide Dog Federation, but most often, training programs will seek ADI accreditation.

As part of the accreditation process for individual dogs, the ADI will administer the ADI Public Access Certification Test, which will measure a dog’s ability to successfully perform the following essential tasks:

  • Cross a parking lot or halt for oncoming traffic
  • Ability to ignore noises and distractions
  • Travel through a narrow passage way and obstacle-laden areas
  • Hold a “stay” stance when someone tries to pet the dog, or offers food
  • Remain calm in the presence of another animal

The ADI PACT test will also measure an owner’s ability to:

  • Safely load and unload a dog from a vehicle
  • Control the dog in crowded public places
  • Recover a leash if dropped
  • Cope with access problems if people inquire about the dog
Service Animals

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Ask your employer if they offer pre-tax accounts for child and dependent care.